Voices & Choices

New study reveals runoffs are consistently expensive, uncompetitive, and yield low turnout

New study reveals runoffs are consistently expensive, uncompetitive, and yield low turnout

In the recent study High Costs and Low Turnout for U.S. Runoff Elections, think tank Third Way concluded that runoffs are an inferior electoral system to ranked choice voting (RCV).

According to the study, written by Third Way Senior Political Analyst David de la Fuente and FairVote Senior Research Analyst Deb Otis, runoffs are most prominent in the American South - such as in Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia. Runoffs were introduced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to ensure winning candidates had majority support, but also to help solidify one-party control.

There are some serious downsides to runoff elections:  not only do runoff elections require voters to return to the polls later, they cost voters and taxpayers an exorbitant amount. The study focuses on runoffs in Texas and Louisiana, in which they found that runoffs on average cost $7 per voter in Texas. In Louisiana, statewide runoffs cost almost as much as the first-round election, doubling voting expenditures and amounting to $5 million spent each time.

In addition to skewed results and high costs, turnout is meager in runoff elections. Previous FairVote research cited in the study found that turnout typically declines by 38% between primary elections and primary runoff elections. These elections are, by definition, competitive: this makes it all the more important to ensure as many voters are included in the process as possible, rather than leave the results to the few who are able to return to the polls.

But there’s a solution. ThirdWay concluded that the key to competitive races, cost efficiency, and high turnout is RCV.

“While upgrading our election system to implement ranked choice voting elections comes with a small cost, it pales in comparison to the costs of a seperate runoff election. Likewise, the voters themselves have a reduced burden by only having to make one trip to their voting location or send one mail ballot instead of voting twice in a short time period,” wrote de la Fuente and Otis.

Read the complete study on the downsides of runoff elections and the need for RCV here.  

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